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Concourse 2

Understanding writing

This is a very brief overview and a roadmap of the area.  There are links at the end to help you understand specific aspects of writing.


The nature of writing

Writing is not usually speech written down.  Try filling in the right-hand column in this table to alert you to the differences between speaking and writing.  Click on the table when you have done that.

speaking vs. writing task

To explain:

Static and conservative
Writers do not have anything like the range of paralinguistic signals at their disposal that speakers have: they cannot point at things, use facial expressions to emphasise or down-tone their language or employ a full range of intonation and stress among other devices.  Punctuation, skilfully and accurately used, can help but it's a poor substitute for the expression of subtlety and nuance that speakers can express.
This means that most writing needs to be carefully constructed to avoid ambiguity and ensure clarity of communication.
For example:
While a speaker can use stress and intonation patterns to make clear what is meant by:
    She didn't speak to the man in the shop
writers have to rephrase the sentences to distinguish between:
    In the shop she did not speak to the man
    She did not speak to the man who was in the shop
Writing, for the most part also follows set conventions and the use of vague terms such as thingy, whatsitsname or stuff is often not appropriate so writers are obliged to hunt for the exact term, replacing
    The stuff went all over the joint
    The material covered the entire area
Speakers often make up words and this is not appropriate in most kinds of writing so something like
    It was really a question of un-bloody-doability
might have to be rephrased as
    The action could definitely not be undone.
Writers do not general know where the reader will be or when they will be reading so references that are common in spoken language such as tomorrow, over there, behind the tree etc. have to be fully worked out in writing.  For example:
Instead of the spoken
    I saw her yesterday
the written equivalent might be
    I saw her the previous day
and may have to be even more explicit in stating a day and date.
    It's just over there
may have a written equivalent of something like
    The object was nearby and to the left of where she was standing
and even that may not be enough to be fully clear.
Writers have to be much more careful than speakers to say what they mean because writing, once passed on to others, cannot be retrieved.  There is little opportunity in writing to express a though such as:
    Oh, no, that's not what I meant
    You have misunderstood me
You can't unsay anything in writing as politicians frequently discover.
Interaction and feedback
Speakers can respond instantly and accurately to the feedback they continually get from the listener so are able, for example, to respond to:
    I don't follow
    Well, I mean that ...
Writers need to make sure that they have been clear the first time around although skilled writers may often anticipate the readers' need for more clarity by the insertion of chunks such as
    To put this another way, ...
    In other words, ...

or by inserting much more exemplification than would be necessary in a spoken interaction.
Careful construction, linking and lexical density
We saw above that writers need to construct sentences which are unambiguous and clear because there is no opportunity for repair and no recourse to words stress and intonation etc.
This means that language such as:
    Well, erm, let me see, it was Tuesday, I think ... no, I tell a lie, it was Wednesday morning that ...
    We went down to the shops and bought some shoes and then had lunch and then went to see that movie, y'know, and then had something at the Indian on the corner and then took a taxi home and went to bed
is simply not available to the writer who has to construct something much tighter, using a fuller range of subordinating and coordinating conjunctions such as:
    I am almost fully sure that it was one Wednesday morning that ...
    We went to the shops and bought some shoes.  Afterwards, we had lunch and then went to see a movie which was ....  After the film, we ate in an Indian restaurant on the corner near where we live.  Finally, we took a taxi home and went to bed.
Stressing and explaining
We saw above that writers cannot use the range that speakers are capable of in terms of stress and gesture etc. so they need to make things clear by a number of other devices so, for example instead of the spoken:
    I really ↗↘ liked the hotel most, y'know
with a fall-rise intonation pattern on the word really, which is also spoken more slowly and more loudly
writers may have to resort to something like:
    It was the hotel that I definitely liked the most
    What I liked most was definitely the hotel
and instead of
    I went to London yesterday ↗↘
with a rise-fall pattern on yesterday, which is also spoken more slowly and loudly
the writer may have to resort to:
    The previous day, I went to London (fronting the adverbial for emphasis).
Underlining, bold type and other devices can be used, of course, but often not in electronic communication and some devices, such as '!!!!!' are disparaged in formal writing style.
Writers, too, often have to resort to diagrams and maps in situations in which a speaker might simply use pointing and gesturing.

Of course, that's not the full picture.  Some speaking (in formal situations, for example) is more like writing and some very informal writing (emails to friends, text messages etc.) is more like speaking written down.  There's a cline in both, like this:

cline 1 cline 2

However, the differences are real and need to be taken into account.  What follows mostly refers to writing towards (not necessarily at) the right-hand end of the second cline.


What do we need to know?

Here's another table to complete in your head (or on paper, if you like).  Think of what's meant by the words in the left-hand column.

need to know

All these areas pose some difficulty for learners.  The guides mentioned here are all linked from the list of related guides at the end.

this does not refer to the dubious art of reading of people's characters from their handwriting but to the mechanics of forming the symbols of the language (letters), using punctuation, abbreviations and so on.  When it comes to spelling, it is better described as orthography.  Obviously, this is more of a challenge for those whose first languages use a non-Latin script but even within Latin-script users, conventions for things like punctuation and capitalisation vary.  Only in writing do such things have an effect.  See the guide to punctuation for much more.  For more on writing systems, see the guide to spelling.
writers are expected to use a wider range of lexis for stylistic reasons, to avoid repetition, for example, and to choose lexis stylistically appropriate to their task.  Fortunately, the nature of writing makes dictionary use feasible but there are still challenges concerning whether to use, e.g., a multi-word verb or its Latinate equivalent and so on (put off instead of cancel, do up instead of fasten etc.).  For more, see the guides to teaching lexis on this site.
it's fair to say that most spoken language is stylistically quite informal but most writing is formal and the choice of the wrong or inappropriate idiom, while not impeding communication, will have a serious effect on the writer's success.  The use of modality is particularly important.  See the guide to style and register on this site for more.
topic knowledge
is most important for people writing formally in an academic environment.  Writers are expected to know the register they are writing in and to use referencing conventionally.
varies conventionally across languages.  Even the conventional placing of things like dates and addresses will vary in formal letters.  Some languages abjure the use of subheadings in writing, some demand it.
speaking can lack cohesion providing it's coherent but writing depends on the use of cohesive devices to lead the reader through the text.  The use of conjunction, in particular, is an area in which writing is much more demanding (speakers can often get away with just joining ideas with and or and then etc.).  See the guide to cohesion on this site for more.
coherence and structure
can be considered together.  There are generic conventions in English concerning how texts of various sorts are staged and how the information is presented.  For more, see the guide to genre on this site.
writers need always to bear in mind that their readers cannot ask them for clarification (although repetition is simple) and will have expectations about how a text answers the questions they have.  All written text can be seen as answering a question of some sort.

There's no test on any of this but you are encouraged to look at the guides to specific areas (see below for the links) before you go on to see how we can approach the teaching of writing.

Related guides
teaching language skills this is an overview of what you and your learners need to know when developing or practising skills
teaching writing the next obvious step
punctuation for some discussion of the rules in English and how languages differ
lexis for the simpler initial plus guides to words and vocabulary
spelling for more on the rules in English and consideration of a variety of writing systems in other languages
assessing writing for the in-service guide to assessing writing skills
style and register for a guide disentangling these related ideas
cohesion for the essentials-only guide to cohesion
discourse many of the guides linked from this in-service index are relevant to writing but some are technical
context for the essential guide to context and co-text

Tribble C, 1997, Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Other references you may find helpful:
Cushing Weigle, S, 2002, Assessing Writing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Harmer, J, 2004, How to Teach Writing, Harlow: Longman
Hedge, T, 2005, Writing, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hughes, R, 2005, Exploring Grammar In Writing: Upper Intermediate and Advanced, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hyland, K, 2003, Second Language Writing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hyland, K, 2002, Teaching and Researching Writing, Harlow: Longman
Kroll, B (ed.), 1990, Second Language Writing: Research Insights for the Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Raimes, A, 1983, Techniques in Teaching Writing, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Shemesh, R & Waller, S, 2000, Teaching English Spelling: A Practical Guide, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Spiro, J, 2004, Creative Poetry Writing, Oxford: Oxford University Press
White, R & Arndt, V, 1991, Process Writing, Harlow: Longman